At first, Michaelann Ferro wasn’t sure what to do when an older co-worker at Trader Joe’s in Brookline tried to pull down her face mask to feed her pretzels and leered at her when she wore shorts. She even stayed silent when he kissed her on the mouth, in the middle of a pandemic. Ferro, a 21-year-old MassArt student, needed her job to pay rent. What if management transferred her to a section where she got fewer hours?
When Ferro did report these and other incidents to the store manager at the end of July, backed by statements from at least five other twentysomething employees who said they had witnessed or experienced inappropriate behavior by the same co-worker, management investigated but concluded it was a “he said, she said” situation and the co-worker would not be disciplined, Ferro said.
But at the very least, she noted, “It was a he said, she said, she said, she said, she said. . . . ”
So Ferro and a group of current and former fellow employees took to social media. A petition on coworker.org, signed by more than 7,000 people, calls on people to stand against sexual harassment at the store and asks other Trader Joe’s workers to share their stories. An Instagram post that begins “Did you know there’s a predator at your local Trader Joe’s?” provides a script urging customers to call corporate headquarters and ask about protocols.
The goal, along with getting the alleged harasser fired, is to strengthen the company’s sexual harassment policies.
“We want change,” said Charlotte Jamar, a co-worker who quit in protest when no action was taken.
Trader Joe’s declined to address the situation in detail but said that the company has a robust process for reporting and investigating allegations, and that the manager, regional vice president, and vice president of human resources were all involved.
“Trader Joe’s is committed to a harassment-free workplace, where all crew members are treated with respect and dignity,” a spokeswoman wrote. “Anything short of that is unacceptable. We take sexual harassment very seriously and will always respond quickly and thoroughly, addressing any allegation and taking action when appropriate. That is exactly what we did in this case.”
The ranks of people speaking up about injustice are growing in the era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and employees of companies that serve the public — particularly young, social-media-savvy workers adept at spreading a message far and wide — have a built-in audience who can help push companies to make systemic changes.
Like the Cambridge workers suing Whole Foods for not letting them wear Black Lives Matter face masks, the Brookline Trader Joe’s employees assumed theirs wasn’t the only store where workers were experiencing the same thing. And they appear to be right.
A former Trader Joe’s worker in West Hartford, Conn., wrote about an older co-worker who was “constantly touching me, asking me if he could drive me home, getting in my car when I would be leaving,” and when he reported it, backed by co-workers’ statements, managers said they couldn’t do anything about it.
One commenter said a “slew of females were repeatedly harassed by a serial offender” at the Shrewsbury store and, following formal complaints, “the offender is still there.”
Another noted that in Queens, N.Y., an alleged victim was told “to either work with their harasser or find employment elsewhere.”
“It’s wild to hear the same story being told by so many different people,” said Ferro, who, after the investigation at the Brookline store, was moved to a different shift and section from the man she said was harassing her.
The man is now reportedly working at a different Trader Joe’s, although Ferro said management never informed her that he had transferred, or how it was decided.
Trader Joe’s would not confirm that the man was working at another store or address any of the points raised by the women.
Several former workers at the Brookline Trader Joe’s defended the man accused of harassment. One commented on a Facebook post by Jamar that he was a “very respectful man” and that “just cause you don’t like the person doesn’t give you the right to give someone a bad reputation.”
Another wrote on Instagram that the women’s petition included the fact that another coworker got fired after he confronted the alleged harasser to rally people to join their cause. “I urge anyone thinking about signing, to ask themself is it really their place to decide the future of this man without really knowing the full story,” the commenter wrote. “I do not support sexual harassment at the work place but I also don’t support wrongful accusation.”
The Brookline workers’ campaign to change the company’s corporate culture relies heavily on a growing number of socially conscious consumers, who can quickly rack up big numbers on online petitions, said Diana Pisciotta, president of the Boston public relations agency Denterlein. People are quick to sign, even without knowing all the facts, to let companies know they care about how issues are handled, she said.
These types of public allegations can be particularly problematic for companies like Trader Joe’s, which promotes a “jovial” culture where employees wear Hawaiian shirts and ring bells to communicate, Pisciotta noted. Earlier this summer, an online petition started by a 17-year-old took Trader Joe’s to task for using what it described as racist product names on internationally themed products, including Trader Ming’s and Trader Jose’s, prompting the company to announce it would change some labels that don’t “resonate” with customers.
“There is a real desire among young people to be part of change and to be part of making the world a better place,” Pisciotta said. “It does tend to result in a little bit of piling on in social media platforms.”
Companies need to recognize the power their employees have and do everything they can to be transparent and show employees they take their concerns seriously, she added.
“This could be a great opportunity for Trader Joe’s to look at itself and say, ’Do I need to do more?’ ” Pisciotta said. “Am I doing enough to arm line managers to deal with comments that could be harassing or discriminatory before it turns into something bigger?”
Lianne O’Reilly, a 24-year-old graduate student at Boston University who shops at the Brookline Trader Joe’s, called the store to ask about their sexual harassment policies after seeing the Instagram campaign.
(A manager told her all investigations were taken seriously, but she was disappointed with the response: “It was kind of like, ’Oh no, not this again.’ “) O’Reilly also signed the petition and shared it on social media, as she has done for other causes.
Being an essential worker during a pandemic is stressful enough, she said. Reading that employees at her Trader Joe’s weren’t being believed “just made me feel sick to my stomach,” O’Reilly said. “As a person in this situation who has power and privilege, I want to help as much as I can.”
Sexual harassment lawsuits often go nowhere or result in confidential settlements, and they may do little to change a company’s culture. But publicly shaming a well-known company can be effective. Take the laid-off employees at the Boylston Street Four Seasons who went public with the company’s limited severance offers earlier this summer — and were quickly awarded the full amount.
“Given the limitations of our traditional legal toolbox, I think it’s understandable and not surprising that people are turning to these methods,” said Lisa Bernt, project director and counsel at the Fair Employment Project, a Cambridge nonprofit dedicated to protecting employees’ civil rights.
Trader Joe’s prides itself on giving employees autonomy, said Jamar, the co-worker who resigned in protest, but it means the workplace can be chaotic. Before Ferro filed an official report about the harassment, she told an assistant manager that her co-worker’s “gross, creepy” behavior was making her uncomfortable, and she said the manager’s response was along the lines of, "Tell him to [expletive] off.”
Jamar has been talking to lawyers about how to get Trader Joe’s to make changes, including improving sexual harassment training and installing security cameras. Workers who make harassment claims shouldn’t have to continue working alongside the person they’ve accused, as Ferro did, she said.
“Trader Joe’s’ whole thing is that they want the crew members to feel like they’re running the show,” Jamar said. “What’s sacrificed is really accountability and making sure that the crew members are safe.”